The Importance of Holiday Traditions
Tips for Beginning New Holiday Traditions and Other Rituals.
From birthdays, to Sunday dinners, to Fourth of July picnics, to any of the other ways we mark milestones, events or simply being together – our cultures are full of traditions. While these can be found in daily life or on special occasions, they’re extremely important during the holidays. Some of these traditions have a religious foundation, while others center around simply sharing a common experience that unifies and brings us together. Either way, they help to center and ground us and help to add meaning to the ordinary and the extraordinary. That’s why we’re going to explore why holiday traditions and other rituals are so important, as well as how to start new ones for you and your family.
(Updated November 10, 2021)
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What are Traditions?
In an article for the University of Illinois, Amy Griswold says that “Traditions are stories, rituals and customs that are passed from one generation to the next.” They may be elaborate, or they may be subtle. We may look forward to them with great anticipation, or we may not even recognize how important they are to us until we don’t do them, and something just feels off.
Dr. Susan Coady of The Ohio State University defines traditions for genealogy.com as “activities that a family does now, has done in the past, is likely to do in the future, and values and respects.” She also says they are characterized by regularity, commitment, and some type of predictability. In other words, they are part of the fabric of our lives.
Bestselling author Sarah Ban Breathnach ( Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy, Something More: Excavating Your Authentic Self (Affiliate Link) and The Simple Abundance Journal of Gratitude (Affiliate Link)) has researched traditions and rituals extensively, especially from the Victorian period. She wrote Mrs. Sharp’s Traditions (Affiliate Link) based on what she learned. Sarah told me that she believes that traditions are just as much a rhythm in our lives as the changing of the seasons and the passing of the days from dark to light.
Why Are Traditions Important?
That’s one of the reasons why holiday traditions and other rituals are so important. They help to set our cadence through life. As Sarah’s daughter was growing up, their family did a seasonal table to mark the changing of the seasons. When her daughter had gone off to college and Sarah was divorced, she realized she missed doing the seasonal table. “We say we do these traditions for our families, but we really do them for ourselves.”
They’re so important and mean so much to us, writer Katharine Rose says, because they’re a way to pass on values, customs and morals from one generation to the next. They also teach us “something about life, where we came from and who we are as people.” No wonder Sarah’s seasonal table was a tradition she missed dearly. It had to do as much with her and her love and respect for the changing of the seasons as it did with her daughter.
Traditions Help Bind Us Together
In Mrs. Sharpe’s Traditions, Sarah has Mrs. Sharpe explain that “Strong, close-knit families share traits that set them apart from troubled ones. One trait is the realization that family traditions strengthen ties within the family. Another is a continuing commitment on the part of parents to use traditions – from treasured holiday rituals to everyday customs – as a unifying thread.” They help bind us together. Sarah points to opening the ornament box during the holidays as one example of this. “We pick out an ornament, and we tell each other, ‘Oh, the story of this ornament…’ We have our stories together, and that’s a very healing recognition.”
Amy Griswold agrees. In her article, she says, “Research shows us that routines and traditions are part of healthy families. Traditions give security to young people, providing a sense of continuity and routine that they can depend on year after year. Such activities help promote healthy relationships between the generations when they are enjoyed and anticipated by everyone.” Of course, the key word there is “enjoyed.” If traditions regularly spark fights or disagreements, the memories they imprint on us aren’t going to be as fond.
Knowing When and How to Start New Holiday Traditions
If families have those kinds of traditions, it’s best to either stop doing them or adjust them so that they fit better for everyone involved. Those are the easy ones to recognize that need to be changed. Sometimes holiday traditions become so engrained in us that it’s hard to tell when it’s time to move on. Whether it’s because children are getting older, people are further away, or a tradition simply doesn’t “fit” anymore, Susan Coady says, “It’s important for people not to hang onto traditions that cause them more grief than it’s worth. Sometimes you have to let traditions go and then make new ones, or at least adapt the old ones to the new situations.”
Sarah recognizes that when many people hear the word “tradition,” they think “Oh God, it’s chiseled in stone.” But, she says that’s not true. “Traditions are like recipes that have been handed down. Your mother might’ve put a pinch of this in it, and then you customize it, but it’s still a tradition.”
Tips for Starting New Holiday Traditions and Other Rituals
As our children get older and our lives change, it’s important to recognize that we still need traditions, but maybe it’s time to try something new. If you decide to do something entirely different, start small and simple and grow from there.
Here are a few suggestions for starting new holiday traditions.
Photo ornaments to mark the year
Find a photo that marks a highlight from the year for each person in your immediate family. You can have the photos made into ornaments for each member of the family. When it comes time to decorate, the entire family can remember the highlights while opening and displaying the ornaments.
(The options for finding places to make the ornaments are limitless. Simply do an online search for photo ornaments.)
Have intentional conversations about holiday traditions with older children
If your children are getting older and it feels like there are traditions that don’t fit anymore, have an intentional conversation about it before the holidays with the entire family. That’s the time when you can determine whether modifications should be made or if the tradition needs to be replaced by a new one. Just the act of making those decisions together will give whatever you decide on more meaning.
Host a cookie decorating party
One of my family’s favorite holiday traditions is to decorate cookies with dear friends. We have been doing this since the kids were little. Even now that we have young adults, it’s a favorite event that everyone looks forward to. There are some among us who take the decorating to the next level, but even for those who aren’t that skilled, it’s a time to talk, catch up, and just be together.
Sarah offers these ideas for creating other new rituals.
Create a seasonal table
Start with one small area as the place where you’re only going to put reminders of the season. If you have children at home, they can help decorate it with inexpensive or no cost items like pine cones, autumn leaves or holly berries. If children aren’t involved, you can let your creative juices take over. Do it as simply or elaborately as you want. Sarah does suggest starting with something small and see how it feels.
Have a tradition of the month
Do something special that marks each month. Sarah says her family marked winter in January, Valentine’s in February, a living Easter basket in March or April, and May baskets in May. In June it was always a blue check tablecloth over the table because summer was coming. It doesn’t have to be huge, just something to recognize the rhythm of what is going on around you.
Bottom Line on Holiday Traditions and Other Rituals
Traditions shouldn’t overwhelm. If they do, they might not be a good fit for you or where you are in life. As we’ve seen here, holiday traditions and other rituals should bring joy for the present and memories of the past. These memories are significant because they help to shape who we are, what we hold as important and what we will pass on to our children.
At the same time though, there’s no pressure to get traditions exactly right. The main thing is that the experience of doing them is just as important and meaningful as the end result. It’s not that the Christmas meal is gourmet or that the seasonal table is perfect. It’s the love, laughter and togetherness that go into the traditions that make them so special and so uniquely yours.